Thursday, July 30, 2015

Amazonia Before Columbus

This is an interesting article published in the Royal Society's Proceedings B.

During the twentieth century, Amazonia was widely regarded as relatively pristine nature, little impacted by human history. This view remains popular despite mounting evidence of substantial human influence over millennial scales across the region. Here, we review the evidence of an anthropogenic Amazonia in response to claims of sparse populations across broad portions of the region. Amazonia was a major centre of crop domestication, with at least 83 native species containing populations domesticated to some degree. Plant domestication occurs in domesticated landscapes, including highly modified Amazonian dark earths (ADEs) associated with large settled populations and that may cover greater than 0.1% of the region. Populations and food production expanded rapidly within land management systems in the mid-Holocene, and complex societies expanded in resource-rich areas creating domesticated landscapes with profound impacts on local and regional ecology. ADE food production projections support estimates of at least eight million people in 1492. By this time, highly diverse regional systems had developed across Amazonia where subsistence resources were created with plant and landscape domestication, including earthworks. This review argues that the Amazonian anthrome was no less socio-culturally diverse or populous than other tropical forested areas of the world prior to European conquest.

I had read 1491 by Charles Mann so none of this came  as a surprise  to me. I would recommend Mann's book  too.  It is a very well researched richly detailed book on the human landscape of the America's (south and north) before the European conquest. The Amazon basin is covered too and the two things that stuck with me are the "anthrosols" or soils produced or rather enriched in organic matter and nutrients by humans activity like mulching and composting. The map below shows the distribution of these anthropogenic soils.

 Source: Clement C. 2015

Their concentrations along the banks of rivers match early European descriptions of farming communities settled along river bluffs, with the interfluvial areas being occupied by semi-nomadic and nomadic hunter gatherers.

The other aspect that fascinated me was the observation of Europeans of the incredibly varied fruit trees from the Amazon jungles. Many true wild fruit are generally small, sour, bitter, thorny, spiky. The native people over millennia had transformed them by selective breeding into the edible fruit smorgasbord that one sees today. Imagine large areas of "virgin" Amazon forests were actually abandoned fruit orchards!

Read this article though.

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